Pierre Reports: A busy week in Pierre

Education and collective bargaining rights caused much debate this week's legislative session. It seems that each year brings new ideas and ways to "fix" South Dakota's educational system.

In our House Education Committee (of which I am a member) meeting on Wednesday, we started with testimony, both pro and con, on a lengthy amendment to the original bill HB 1234. Those in favor of the governor's bill were several, including lobbyists representing school administrators, school boards, the Board of Regents, and large schools. Opponents consisted of classroom teachers from across the state from Sioux Falls to Custer and from Aberdeen to Wagner. Testimony lasted for a little over two hours.

After session Wednesday, we reconvened to ask questions to the Secretary of Education and lobbyists. Then we discussed the issues amongst the committee members. A motion to pass the bill with the amendment passed on a 11-4 vote. The 11 votes for the bill were Republican and the four against the bill were Democrats.

What the amended bill contained involved three items. The first replaced the governor's $3,500 annual bonus with a plan to attract new teachers into math and science education. The new math and science teachers qualify for $8,000 annually for their first five years of teaching.

The second part of the amended bill addressed the top teachers program. This section has three choices.

1) Participate in the proposed governor's bonus program giving the top 20 percent of the teachers in each school district a $5,000 bonus. In my opinion, this will definitely pit teacher against teacher.

2) A school can opt out of the incentive bonus program entirely. I cannot imagine any school doing this option.

3) A school district can propose their own plan based upon student achievement and evaluations of teachers. Each school that submits their own plan must be approved by the secretary of education. A representative from the secretary of education's office gave the opinion that this third option would most likely be the option schools would choose.

Also included in the education bill was phasing out continuing contracts (better known as tenure). Any new teachers would not be eligible for tenure effective this summer.

The final part of this bill is that the state will have standard evaluations for every student, teacher and school, every year to allow state policy makers to make informed decisions about what works.

The total time spent on this bill and its amendment was over four and a half hours. The e-mails I'm receiving do have an effect on my decisions on bills, but on this education bill, I strongly feel monies for education should go to the base formula. Who knows better about local educational issues than those involved at the local level.

Another bill that caused many e-mails and opponents traveling to Pierre was HB 1261 – a bill to prohibit collective bargaining by public employees. This bill was heard in the House Commerce and Energy Committee. I am also a member of this committee. After all the e-mails, personal visits, and testimony by opponents to this bill, it was tabled 13-0. This was a classic example of how influential people can be under our constitution.

As a legislator, I must remember that something that appears inane or stupid to me is important to others. A classic example of this was HB 1117. This bill provided for the shooting of muskrats under certain conditions. In the northeastern part of our state, the muskrats are so many that they are undermining the country roads and the residents are asking for permission to shoot them. This passed 63-7. After listening to testimony, this bill was fair and necessary.

Last year there was a bill to construct a maintenance shop in Pierre to the tune of $500,000. This building was to be 4,000 square feet, which equates to $125 per square foot. To me, that was very excessive. I spoke to this bill on the floor and it was defeated. This year the same bill was presented with the same square footage, but with a $300,000 price tag on it. Now the price tag was $75.00 per square foot. It passed 53-17 and I voted for it.

HB 1158 is a bill to allow students attending nonpublic schools to be eligible for the jump start scholarship program. This bill passed on a close vote, 36-32, and I voted against it.

Once again, if you wish to contact me concerning a bill, please contact me at Rep.jones@state.sd.us

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